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Supreme Court lets California’s immigrant ‘sanctuary’ law stand

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected the Trump administration’s request for it to consider throwing out California’s so-called “sanctuary state” law.

The justices’ order leaves in place lower court rulings that upheld the 2017 law, which limits ways local law enforcement can help federal immigration authorities pursue undocumented immigrants who’ve been charged with nonviolent crimes.

The unexpected news drew strong reactions from people across Southern California who for nearly three years have led the charge both to support and oppose the strongest anti-deportation law in the country.

“We’re really excited and happy that the law stands, and that our communities are going to continue to be safe, and that our dollars won’t be spent in supporting Donald Trump’s agenda to separate families,” said Javier Hernandez, director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, based in Ontario.

Almas Sayeed, a Los Angeles-based attorney with the California Immigrant Policy Center, which has advocated for the bill, said the news hadn’t really sunk in Monday morning. Given the conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, Sayeed and some other advocates said they’d been expecting justices to take up the case and were preparing to help defend the law, perhaps next fall.

“There was a fight from day one with the Trump administration when this law was passed,” she said. “But this absolutely settles it.”

Don Barnes, sheriff of Orange County, which joined Trump’s lawsuit against the state, said the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t change his opposition to the sanctuary law, which he believes has made the state less safe.

“Communication among law enforcement partners on shared threats is critical to the safety of all members of the public,” Barnes said. “I urge lawmakers to reconsider this law.”

California passed Senate Bill 54, or the California Values Act, in fall 2017 following President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

The law prohibits state and local police from asking people who’ve been arrested — except for those charged with serious crimes — about their immigration status. It also bars police from notifying federal agents when an immigrant is being released from jail, or from holding an immigrant after their release date so they can be transferred to immigration authorities.

The bill was hailed as a victory by immigrant advocates seeking to encourage immigrants to trust in local police officers and report crime. It was also billed as a cost-saving measure, since local resources couldn’t be used to enforce federal law by letting immigration agents have free office space in county jails or by having city police transport immigrants to federal custody.

In the first two years the law was enacted, Sayeed cited research that says Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 40% fewer people in California.

But critics have consistently slammed California’s law, saying it makes it harder to deport immigrants who commit crimes and leads law enforcement to release them back into communities. Some of those released immigrants, Sheriff Barnes noted, have gone on to commit new offenses.

Some law enforcement agencies ignored the new law, while some cities and counties pushed back during public meetings that attracted large, raucous crowds.

Los Alamitos passed an ordinance in 2018 where the Orange County city declared itself exempt from the California Values Act. As a charter city, Los Alamitos said it had a constitutional right to regulate its own police.

That anti-sanctuary ordinance was the catalyst for more than 60 cities and counties across California – including more than half of Orange County – to adopt some type of measure condemning California’s law.

Huntington Beach sued California in 2018, also citing charter city laws. But on April 2, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case. And a month later, as part of a settlement agreement with a civil rights group, Los Alamitos quietly rescinded its anti-sanctuary law.

An effort to get a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot to repeal the California Values Act also failed. That left the Supreme Court as the last hope for opponents of the sanctuary law.

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas voted to hear the administration’s appeal, according to Monday’s announcement. But the other justices declined, leaving the sanctuary law in place.

Hernandez said he hopes more law enforcement agencies will start abiding by the law now that all legal challenges are exhausted. If they don’t, he said, they can expect legal battles of their own.

Annie Lai, an attorney who helps run UC Irvine’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, said Monday’s Supreme Court decision should give states and local governments some confidence that they’re legally entitled to enact more measures to protect immigrant rights.

Advocates who believe the California Values Act didn’t go far enough by not protecting undocumented immigrants as they’re released from state prisons, for example, already have their eyes set on broader changes.

That includes Phal Sok of Los Angeles, a Cambodian refugee who was nearly deported after state prison authorities handed him to immigration agents when he finished serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery.

“I think it does pave the way for something better,” Sok said.

Brooke Staggs
Orange County Register

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